THE FROZEN FRENZY OF THE DECADE

Consumers are seeking variety through “healthy” plant-based frozen meals 

Refrigeration found its strongest supporters in its early days among those who wanted to ship and preserve meat, rather than live animals. Ice machines began replacing the ice cutters on lakes in the mid-1800s, followed by cold stores (late 1800s) and refrigerators (early 1900s), completing American’s cold chain.  These developments led to the industrialization of food, characterized by distended transportation networks which led to waste reduction and the globalized food markets.  While refrigeration has been growing at a frantic pace since its inception, the popularity of the frozen meal category has varied widely.

In the early ’60 - ‘70s, there was general excitement [1] surrounding “pre-made” microwavable frozen meals, relieving a family from the stress of home cooking. That perspective ebbed and flowed, and by the early ‘90s, consumers started paying attention to nutritional research as many turned to the internet. As certain ingredients – additives, fillers, preservatives – became associated with “unhealthy” processed foods, many scoffed at “frozen meals” such as LeanCuisine, Stouffer’s, and Marie Callender’s.

Responding to consumer demand for nutritious offerings, old and new companies, alike, rose to the challenge and began reforming the frozen meal category. In parallel with the growing popularity of plant-based diets during the 2010s, [2] companies slowly introduced new frozen selections of higher quality, taste, and nutrition. As a result, families showed a renewed interest in frozen meals.

The growth rate of the plant-based category took a strong turn upon the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic. In an effort to boost overall health and immunity, consumers flocked to grocery stores seeking healthy meals, typically linked with plant-based offerings. As a result, frozen meals experienced one of the highest growth rates of food categories during 2020, regaining a foothold in the CPG industry. [3]

 

The Market

Why frozen? Frozen meals have an incredibly long shelf-life and offer both variety and convenience. As the pandemic forced restaurants to shutdown, meal options became limited and food hoarding behaviors in grocery stores took effect. Consumers turned to frozen meals as a source of security. Plant-based frozen meals also served as a simple solution for new plant-based adopters, those seeking variety in taste, and consumers tired of cooking.  

A number of sources have estimated market demand for frozen meals, especially, in the plant-based sector:

  • Frozen Meal Market: Technavio estimates the global frozen food market, worth $290 billion in 2019, [1] carries a CAGR of 11% between 2020 and 2024, [2] with plant-based frozen food demand as a major driver.
  • Frozen foods sales increased by 18% in 2020. [3] [4]
  • Plant-Based Frozen Meal Market: According to the Plant Based Food Association, (see graphic below), plant-based meal sales (including frozen, fresh and ambient) increased by 28% from 2019 to 2020, reaching $520 million in sales and capturing close to 6-8% of the 2020 plant-based market.[8]  

Figure1: Plant Based Food Association demonstrates the market growth of the frozen plant-based meal category.

 

Plant-based frozen meals are a small, but rapidly growing piece of the overall plant-based market.

 

Trending Vegan Frozen Meals

To keep pace with consumer demand, the number of vegan frozen meal companies have significantly increased over the past few years.  Recently, companies are launching new frozen SKUs, offering a wider variety of flavors, cuisines, and formats that are both good tasting and healthy.[9]  

Companies offering vegan frozen meals are strategically targeting several different audiences in an effort to differentiate themselves. [10]  See examples below of how frozen plant-based companies are positioning themselves:

Figure2: Popular plant-based frozen companies by brand strategy. [Note: Unovis currently invests in Alpha, Eat Virgin, Good Catch, Heura, and Wicked]

 

As demonstrated in the diagram above, there are a few examples within the Unovis portfolio that demonstrate the growing diversity of offerings within the vegan frozen meal sector:

  • Alpha Foods ~ A family friendly “center-of-the-plate” brand offering vegan frozen pizza, chicken, burgers, burrito, among others.
  • Eat Virgin ~ A brand focused on cultural flavorings and allergen-friendly vegan meals. Offerings include a line of breakfast burritos and dinner bowls.
  • Good Catch ~ A gourmet style seafood brand offering frozen plant-based fishcakes, burgers, sticks, and fillets, as well as, crab cakes, and shelf stable tuna.
  • Heura ~ A trendy Spanish, millennial focused, “center-of-the-plate” brand offering vegan frozen chicken, beef, meatballs, and pizza.
  • Wicked Foods ~ A gourmet vegan lifestyle brand has launched over 30 SKUs in the US in a partnership with Kroger and Sprouts. Offerings include frozen, ambient, and fresh plant-based products. The frozen line includes plant-based meats and meal kits.

The vegan frozen meal category has made significant progress over the past few years, however, there are several untapped opportunities.

  • Cultural Flavors To date, there are several Asian and Mexican options within the frozen meal category. Companies are exploring other flavors of interest, such as European and African cuisines.  
  • Gourmet + NutritionSeveral companies are working to combine gourmet, “clean-label” and allergen-friendly product lines to attract families seeking high-quality tasting, healthy meals.
  • AffordabilityContinued demand for plant-based frozen meals will result in higher production volumes, enabling companies to decrease both product cost and SRPs (Suggested Retail Price).
  • New Vegan CategoriesThere are many unexplored vegan meats (i.e. deli meats) that could be offered in the frozen aisle. Wicked Foods has made significant strides in this category.

The Future of Frozen

Similar to the plant-based industry, frozen meals are here to stay. The technique of freezing food, as a means of preservation, has existed for thousands of years. [11]  As history repeats itself, frozen meals have, once again, re-established themselves as a popular grocery store item.  

As discussed previously, the US frozen plant-based market has the potential to increase its piece of the billion-dollar frozen foods “pie” due to the following key drivers:

  • Availability & Inclusivity: To keep pace with consumer demand, plant-based frozen meal companies are rapidly innovating to offer a greater variety of options – ethnic flavors, family friendly, and “better for you.”  New and established CPG companies are reinventing their own frozen food brands to make new offerings available through every possible channel (i.e. eCommerce, retail, food service).
  • Taste, Texture, and Affordability: Quality improvements in the plant-based sector, geared towards texture, flavor and price, have resulted in dramatic renovation of the frozen meal section.
  • Innovation: Newly launched “white space” products are attracting curious consumers seeking variety and flavor. Frozen plant-based seafood and meat offerings are increasing in popularity and improving in flavor.
  • Keep your eyes peeled the next time you walk down the frozen isle - There may be some tasty new plant-based offerings!


[1] Gust, Lauren. MIT - Intersect. “Defrosting Dinner: The Evolution of FrozenMeals in America.” Volume 4, Number 1. 2011.

[2] Ramanathan, Lavanya. The Washington Post. How ‘plant-based’ rebranded vegan eating for the mainstream.” Feb 15th, 2019.

[3] Browne. Michael. Supermarket News. Frozen Food sales up 21% in 2020 as COVID alters shopping and eating behaviors.” Feb 23rd, 2021.

[4] Grand View Research. Frozen Food Market Side, Share and Trends, 2020-2027.” April 2020.

[5] Businesswire & Technavio. Frozen Food Market – Demand of Vegan Frozen Food to Boost the Market Growth.” Oct 9th, 2020.

[6] Morse, Madison. Foodtank. COVID-19 Spurs Demand in the Frozen Food Industry.” Feb 2021.

[7] Devenyns, Jessi. Food Dive. Frozen food sales soar with homebound consumers during pandemic. Dec 23rd, 2020.

[8] PlantBased Food Association. 2020 was a breakout year for plant-based foods.April 2021.

[9] Food Ingredients 1st. Chilled trends: Frozen foods surge during COVID-19, suppliers highlight opportunities in ‘Segment of the future.’” July 13th, 2020.

[10] Hamstra, Mark. CO. Pandemic Fuel the Upscale Makeover of Frozen Food.” July 13th, 2020.

[11] Eater. The Strange History of Frozen Food.August 21st, 2014.